Tunisian Internet writer still jailed after two years

New York, February 28, 2007—The Committee to Protect to Journalists today called on Tunisia to free an Internet writer jailed two years ago for Web articles that criticized President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and described torture in Tunisian prisons.

Secret police in Tunis arrested Mohamed Abbou, a human rights lawyer and contributor to the Tunisnews Web site, on March 1, 2005, just hours after the site posted his article about Ben Ali. The piece denounced Ben Ali for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the World Summit on Information Society, a U.N.-sponsored forum on Internet governance, and compared the Tunisian leader to his Israeli counterpart. In the Arab world, such a comparison is highly negative.

Authorities had already been angered by Abbou’s earlier work, which included a piece in which he compared torture in Tunisia’s prisons to that committed by U.S. military guards at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib, according to human rights lawyers and advocates.

On April 28, 2005, a Tunisian court sentenced Abbou to three and a half years in prison for “defaming the judicial process” and for an assault allegation that was directly contradicted by eyewitnesses. An appellate court upheld the sentence in June 2005. Tunisia’s executive branch exerts great influence over the judiciary, using the court system as a tool to punish critics, CPJ research shows.

“Mohamed Abbou’s continued imprisonment is an outrage that highlights Tunisia’s awful press freedom record,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “If Tunisia supports human rights, as it likes to tell the world, then it should abide by international standards of justice.”

Abbou is currently imprisoned in El-Kef, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) from his
home in Tunis, making family visits difficult. His wife, Samia, his lawyers, and friends have been harassed by Tunisian police and assaulted by men thought to be affiliated with the government. Since his imprisonment, Abbou has gone on several hunger strikes to protest his imprisonment, his harassment by prison guards, and the intimidation of his family, lawyers, and friends.
In November 2005, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations concluded that the detention of Mohammed Abbou was arbitrary and in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It reminded the Tunisian government of the need to abide by international standards of free expression and due process. Despite this record, Tunisia was named a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council when the panel was established in June 2006.

A December 2006 CPJ analysis found that Internet journalists are being jailed in increasing numbers worldwide. CPJ outlined widespread repression of the Tunisian news media in a December 2005 special report and in the new edition of its book, Attacks on the Press.